The Iranian Nuclear Negotiations: What's Been the Blockage

While acknowledging the Iranian penchant for deception, and recognizing that Iran is continuing along a downward path toward totalitarianism, with a Revolutionary Guard and Bassij militia presence spreading out into villages throughout the country, we should take a look at the nuclear negotiations from a more neutral angle -- the goal being to see if there is a way towards a "grand bargain" and thereby ward off a military attack on Iran that would be utterly lacking in legitimacy. For where is the legitimacy in attacking another state for the sole reason that it possesses a certain kind of weapon? (Israel is a special case, as it has been threatened with extinction by the outrageous rhetoric of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, endorsed, it should be noted, by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.)

The fact is that Iran has had an agenda on offer involving a renunciation of weapons of mass destruction in return for an American pledge not to try to effect regime change. This is contained in a document called "Roadmap," dated May 4, 2003, from the Swiss ambassador representing American interests in Iran, on the basis of his high-level talks with Iranian leaders. ( This initiative, interestingly, came on the heels of the American capture of Baghdad, and the rumor which then arose that U.S. forces might "turn right" and head for Tehran.

After this document leaked, a State Department spokesman had this to say on February 13, 2007: "The last 30 years are filled with examples of individuals claiming to represent Iranian views. We have offered to Iran a chance to sit across the table from us and discuss their nuclear issues and anything else they would like, should they simply, verifiably suspend their uranium enrichment activities." (The rub here is that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty does not prohibit uranium enrichment, only the use of uranium in atomic weapons).

The Iranian position was officially affirmed in a document dated August 1, 2005: an aide-memoire to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). (IAEA document INFOCIRC 648). This document restated the Iranian position, which was notably as follows: an open fuel cycle, to remove any concern about reprocessing and production of plutonium; and the placing of a ceiling on enrichment at the low enriched uranium (LEU) level, thereby eliminating the uranium route to a bomb. Though this agenda never got near implementation, the interest in it is that it was recognized by the Iranians as containing legitimate issues for discussion.

Much later, in 2010, the U.S. took the lead in rejecting a Brazilian/Turkish/Iranian compromise proposal involving a swap of nuclear fuel to enable the Tehran Research Reactor project to go ahead.

As noted above, the position of Iran's interlocutors in the negotiations (the Permanent Five of the UN Security Council plus Germany) is that Iran must halt all uranium enrichment activity before meaningful negotiations can begin. And yet, U.S. officials admit privately (and Hillary Clinton indicated publicly in March 2011) that some concession on enrichment could be made to the Iranians (under strict IAEA supervision) if a grand bargain is eventually achieved.

What then is the reason for this adamant stand that is being pushed by the United States? Partly it is a reflection of American bitterness toward Iran and the unrequited humiliation of the Iranian hostage crisis of some 30 years ago. But perhaps more importantly, it represents an effort to squeeze the maximum out of the Iranians and not to show any "give" -- thereby forestalling a temptation on the part of its existentially threatened ally, Israel, to resort to a preemptive attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.

Suspicion on both sides -- Iranian and American -- is extremely high. Iranian fear of American-sponsored regime change may seem unrealistic in today's world, but the fact is that Iran was the victim of an American regime change back in 1953.

At any event, negotiations seem likely to be resumed at some point in 2013, and perhaps now is the moment for Iran's interlocutors to offer what would be the eventual concession on enrichment.

There can be no illusions about negotiating with Tehran -- trickiness being a virtue in the Iranian vulgate. Nevertheless every effort should be made to eliminate the possibility of what would be an unprovoked American military attack on Iran. As Winston Churchill famously said, it is better to jaw-jaw than to war-war.